Tuesday, August 25, 2020

We live in difficult times

Eighty years to the day after the Trotsky assassination, Navalny is poisoned. Hundreds of thousands of protestors in Minsk are trying to get rid of Lukashenko. It looks ominous. The virus continues to rage throughout the world exposing the inadequacies of our systems and human stupidity.

The religious fanatics in Israel have crossed the line. They have been impacting the lives of the secular before but never before has their absence of common sense directly affected the lives of everyone else in the matters of life and death.

But it is not only them.  Apparently, bars were full with people watching the European football finals. How can so many seemingly reasonable people become immune to common sense?  Are they just uninformed? Do they think they themselves are invulnerable, but where is their sense of responsibility that they might asymptomatically spread the virus to the more vulnerable part of the population, and cause them to become sick, even die? 

Never before have I seen such lack of direction in Israel than in the last few weeks. The numbers keep rising, the policy is unclear although we need to get below 1 newly infected person per 100000 per day, and that is just not happening.  

And the horrible choice in the US, I just cannot make myself vote. If only Nikki Haley were running for president this year.

Lukashenko, the poisoning of Navalny, the virus - they are all the consequences of the communist mentality which is so difficult to get rid of, even after 100 years and 100 million victims. So sad that the West has so little to offer to counter them. Instead we are doubting our own values. 

Any light in this gloom? Well, yes, there are epidemiologists like Michael Orterholm, Anthony Fauci and Marc Lipsitch who give me hope that there are some who have not taken leave of their senses.  Another four months of this surreal world.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Israel-UAE Agreement, Bibi, Putin, KGB and the PLO

This deal was made because of Iran, but on the other hand I am happy that Bibi finally overturned the policy which the KGB managed to impose on the Middle East by creating the PLO in the 1960s, so in a way this is a personal answer to Putin as ex KGB.

 Brainchild of the KGB

 As Ion Mihai Pacepa, onetime director of the Romanian espionage service (DIE), later explained, the PLO was conceived at the time the KGB was creating "liberation front" organizations  throughout the Third World.  Others included the National Liberation Army of Bolivia, created in 1964 with the help from Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and the National Liberation Army of Colombia, created in 1965 with the help from Fidel Castro. But the PLO was the KGB's most enduring achievement.

In 1964, the first PLO Council, consisting of 422 Palestinian representatives handpicked by the KGB, approved the Soviet blueprint for a Palestinian National Charter - a document drafted in Moscow – and made Ahmad Shukairy, the KGB's agent of influence, the first PLO chairman. The Romanian intelligence service was given responsibility for providing the PLO with logistics support. Except for the arms, which were supplied by the KGB and East German Stasi, everything according to Ion Pacepa, "came from Bucharest. Even the PLO uniforms and the PLO stationery were manufactured in Romania free of charge, as a 'comradely help'. During those years, two Romanian cargo planes filled with goodies for the PLO landed in Beirut every week." 
The PLO Discovers "Wars of national Liberation"

 As early as 1964, Arafat had sent Abu Jihad (later the leader of the PLO's military operations) to North Vietnam to study the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare as waged by Ho Chi Minh. At this time, Fatah also translated the writings of North Vietnam's General Nguyen Giap, as well as the works of Mao and Che Guevara, into Arabic.

 Arafat was particularly struck by Ho Chi Minh's success in mobilizing left-wing sympathizers in Europe and the United States, where activists on American campuses, enthusiastically followed  the line of North Vietnamese operatives, had succeeded in reframing the Vietnam War from a Communist assault on the south to a struggle for national liberation. Ho's chief strategist, General Giap, made it clear to Arafat and his lieutenants that in order to succeed, they too needed to redefine the terms of their struggle. Giap's counsel was simple but profound: the PLO needed to work in a way that concealed its real goals , permitted strategic deception, and gave the appearance of moderation: "Stop talking about annihilating Israel and instead turn your terror war into a struggle for human rights. Then you will have the American people eating out of your hand."

 History Upside Down by David Meir-Levi, page 28  

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Michael Osterholm: Russian vaccine is a propaganda stunt and is dangerous

18:24 into the video:  Question:  Big news today from Russia was that the Russians have approved a covid-19 vaccine that hasn’t even been through phase 3 clinical trials. What do you make of this, Mike?

Michael Osterholm: This is a propaganda stunt. Seriously, that’s all it can be. No one in public health could recommend that you put forward a vaccine in most urgent of conditions without a phase 3 study. Remember last week I talked about the different phases and the fact that we have to understand more about how well it works, how safe it is, etc.  in these larger studies and  I think you’ve heard today from the public health community around the world including WHO, the grave concern about what they’ve done in Russia,  and you couldn’t get  me to take this vaccine for the life of me.  

And I am truly sorry, I would never give it to any of my loved ones and family members and I surely would not recommend it to any of you. So we need to have the kind of data that we can assure the public, that we can assure ourselves, that this vaccine is effective, that it’s safe to the extent we possibly can, and anything short of that I think endangers public health. My fear is that if something does happen with the vaccine and the human recipients in Russia, that will get painted across the board as being something that all international related vaccines will get painted with and I think it will be a real disservice. So I uniformly reject what the Russians have done and I think it is dangerous. 

Aug 17 update. As a letter to the editor in the Jerusalem Post as Russia’s putative COVID cure

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Here’s How to Crush the Virus Until Vaccines Arrive

To save lives, and save the economy, we need another lockdown.

By Michael T. Osterholm and Neel Kashkari
Dr. Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Mr. Kashkari is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

In just weeks we could almost stop the viral fire that has swept across this country over the past six months and continues to rage out of control. It will require sacrifice but save many thousands of lives.

We believe the choice is clear. We can continue to allow the coronavirus to spread rapidly throughout the country or we can commit to a more restrictive lockdown, state by state, for up to six weeks to crush the spread of the virus to less than one new case per 100,000 people per day.

That’s the point at which we will be able to limit the increase in new cases through aggressive public health measures, just as other countries have done. But we’re a long way from there right now.

The imperative for this is clear because as a nation what we have done so far hasn’t worked. Some 160,000 people have died, and in recent days, roughly a thousand have died a day. An estimated 30 million Americans are collecting unemployment.

On Jan. 30, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a public health emergency, there were 9,439 reported cases worldwide, most in China, and only six reported cases in the United States.

On July 30, six months later, there were 17 million cases reported worldwide, including 676,000 deaths. The United States had four million reported cases and 155,000 deaths. More than a third of all U.S. cases occurred during July alone.

And the next six months could make what we have experienced so far seem like just a warm-up to a greater catastrophe. With many schools and colleges starting, stores and businesses reopening, and the beginning of the indoor heating season, new case numbers will grow quickly.

Why did the United States’ Covid-19 containment response fail, particularly compared with the successful results of so many nations in Asia, Europe and even our neighbor Canada?

Simply, we gave up on our lockdown efforts to control virus transmission well before the virus was under control. Many other countries didn’t let up until the number of cases was greatly reduced, even in places that had extensive outbreaks in March and April. Once the number of new cases in those areas was driven to less than one per 100,000 people per day as a result of their lockdowns, limiting the increase of new cases was possible with a combination of testing, contact tracing, case isolation and extensive monitoring of positive tests.

The United States recorded its lowest seven-day average since March 31 on May 28, when it was 21,000 cases, or 6.4 new cases per 100,000 people per day. This rate was seven to 10 times higher than the rates in countries that successfully contained their new infections. While many countries are now experiencing modest flare-ups of the virus, their case loads are in the hundreds or low thousands of infections per day, not tens of thousands, and small enough that public health officials can largely control the spread.

In contrast, the United States reopened too quickly and is now experiencing around 50,000 or more new cases per day.

While cases are falling in the hard-hit areas of Arizona, California, Florida and Texas because of the imposition of some physical-distancing measures, they are rapidly increasing in a few of Midwestern states. In Minnesota, we just documented the most new cases in a one-week period since the pandemic began.

At this level of national cases — 17 new cases per 100,000 people per day — we simply don’t have the public health tools to bring the pandemic under control. Our testing capacity is overwhelmed in many areas, resulting in delays that make contact tracing and other measures to control the virus virtually impossible.

Don’t confuse short-term case reductions in some states as permanent. We made that mistake before. Some have claimed that the widespread use of masks is enough to control the pandemic, but let us face reality: Gov. Gavin Newsom of California issued a public masking mandate on June 18, a day when 3,700 cases were reported in the state. On July 25, the seven-day daily case average was 10,231. We support the wearing of masks by all Americans, but masking mandates and soft limitations on indoor crowds in places such as bars and restaurants are not enough to control this pandemic.

To successfully drive down our case rate to less than one per 100,000 people per day, we should mandate sheltering in place for everyone but the truly essential workers. By that, we mean people must stay at home and leave only for essential reasons: food shopping and visits to doctors and pharmacies while wearing masks and washing hands frequently. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 39 percent of workers in the United States are in essential categories. The problem with the March-to-May lockdown was that it was not uniformly stringent across the country. For example, Minnesota deemed 78 percent of its workers essential. To be effective, the lockdown has to be as comprehensive and strict as possible.

If we aren’t willing to take this action, millions more cases with many more deaths are likely before a vaccine might be available. In addition, the economic recovery will be much slower, with far more business failures and high unemployment for the next year or two. The path of the virus will determine the path of the economy. There won’t be a robust economic recovery until we get control of the virus.

If we do this aggressively, the testing and tracing capacity we’ve built will support reopening the economy as other countries have done, allow children to go back to school and citizens to vote in person in November. All of this will lead to a stronger, faster economic recovery, moving people from unemployment to work.

We know that a stringent lockdown can have serious health consequences for patients who can’t get access to routine care. But over the past six months, medical professionals have learned how to protect patients and staffs from spreading the coronavirus; therefore we should be able to maintain access to regular medical care during any new lockdown.

This pandemic is deeply unfair. Millions of low-wage, front-line service workers have lost their jobs or been put in harm’s way, while most higher-wage, white-collar workers have been spared. But it is even more unfair than that; those of us who’ve kept our jobs are actually saving more money because we aren’t going out to restaurants or movies, or on vacations. Unlike in prior recessions, remarkably, the personal savings rate has soared to 20 percent from around 8 percent in January.

Because we are saving more, we have the resources to support those who have been laid off. Typically when the government runs deficits, it must rely on foreign investors to buy the debt because Americans aren’t generating enough savings to fund it. But we can finance the added deficits for Covid-19 relief from our own domestic savings. Those savings end up funding investment in the economy. That’s why traditional concerns about racking up too much government debt do not apply in this situation. It is much safer for a country to fund its deficits domestically than from abroad.

Congress should be aggressive in supporting people who’ve lost jobs because of Covid-19. It’s not only the right thing to do but also vital for our economic recovery. If people can’t pay their bills, it will ripple through the economy and make the downturn much worse, with many more bankruptcies, and the national recovery much slower.

There is no trade-off between health and the economy. Both require aggressively getting control of the virus. History will judge us harshly if we miss this life- and economy-saving opportunity to get it right this time.

Michael T. Osterholm is a professor and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Neel Kashkari is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Russia’s Race for Virus Vaccine Raises Concerns in the West

In this photo made from footage provided by the Russian Defense Ministry on July 15, 2020, medical workers prepare to draw blood from volunteers participating in a coronavirus vaccine trial at the Budenko Main Military Hospital outside Moscow, Russia.

MOSCOW - Russia boasts that it’s about to become the first country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, with mass vaccinations planned as early as October using shots that are yet to complete clinical trials -- and scientists worldwide are sounding the alarm that the headlong rush could backfire.

Moscow sees a Sputnik-like propaganda victory, recalling the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite in 1957. But the experimental COVID-19 shots began first-in-human testing on a few dozen people less than two months ago, and there’s no published scientific evidence yet backing Russia’s late entry to the global vaccine race, much less explaining why it should be considered a front-runner.
“I’m worried that Russia is cutting corners so that the vaccine that will come out may be not just ineffective, but also unsafe,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global public health law expert at Georgetown University. “It doesn’t work that way. ... Trials come first. That’s really important.”
According to Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia’s Direct Investment Fund that bankrolled the effort, a vaccine developed by the Gamaleya research institute in Moscow may be approved in days, before scientists complete what’s called a Phase 3 study. That final-stage study, usually involving tens of thousands of people, is the only way to prove if an experimental vaccine is safe and really works.
Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said members of “risk groups,” such as medical workers, may be offered the vaccine this month. He didn’t clarify whether they would be part of the Phase 3 study that is said to be completed after the vaccine receives “conditional approval.”
Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova promised to start “industrial production” in September, and Murashko said mass vaccination may begin as early as October.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease specialist, questioned the fast-track approach last week. “I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing a vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone, because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing I think is problematic at best,” he said.

Questions about this vaccine candidate come after the U.S., Britain and Canada last month accused Russia of using hackers to steal vaccine research from Western labs.
Delivering a vaccine first is a matter of national prestige for the Kremlin as it tries to assert the image of Russia as a global power capable of competing with the U.S. and China. The notion of being “the first in the world” dominated state news coverage of the effort, with government officials praising reports of the first-step testing.
In April, President Vladimir Putin ordered state officials to shorten the time of clinical trials for a variety of drugs, including potential coronavirus vaccines.
According to Russia’s Association of Clinical Trials Organizations, the order set “an unattainable bar” for scientists who, as a result, “joined in on the mad race, hoping to please those at power.”
The association first raised concern in late May, when professor Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya institute, said he and other researchers tried the vaccine on themselves.
The move was a “crude violation of the very foundations of clinical research, Russian law and universally accepted international regulations” the group said in an open letter to the government, urging scientists and health officials to adhere to clinical research standards.
But a month later, the Health Ministry authorized clinical trials of the Gamaleya product, with what appeared to be another ethical issue.
Human studies started June 17 among 76 volunteers. Half were injected with a vaccine in liquid form and the other half with a vaccine that came as soluble powder. Some in the first half were recruited from the military, which raised concerns that servicemen may have been pressured to participate.
Some experts said their desire to perform well would affect the findings. “It’s no coincidence media reports we see about the trials among the military said no one had any side effects, while the (other group) reported some,” said Vasily Vlassov, a public health expert with Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
As the trials were declared completed and looming regulatory approval was announced last week, questions arose about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. Government assurances the drug produced the desired immune response and caused no significant side effects were hardly convincing without published scientific data describing the findings.
The World Health Organization said all vaccine candidates should go through full stages of testing before being rolled out. “There are established practices and there are guidelines out,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said Tuesday. “Between finding or having a clue of maybe having a vaccine that works, and having gone through all the stages, is a big difference.”
Offering an unsafe compound to medical workers on the front lines of the outbreak could make things worse, Georgetown’s Gostin said, adding: “What if the vaccine started killing them or making them very ill?”

Vaccines that are not properly tested can cause harm in many ways — from a negative impact on health to creating a false sense of security or undermining trust in vaccinations, said Thomas Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It takes several years to develop any drug,” said Svetlana Zavidova, executive director of Russia’s Association of Clinical Trials Organizations. “Selling something the Gamaleya (institute) tested on 76 volunteers during Phase 1-2 trials as a finished product is just not serious.”
Russia has not yet published any scientific data from its first clinical trials. The WHO’s list of vaccine candidates in human testing still lists the Gamaleya product as in Phase 1 trials.
It uses a different virus -- the common cold-causing adenovirus -- that’s been modified to carry genes for the “spike” protein that coats the coronavirus, as a way to prime the body to recognize if a real COVID-19 infection comes along. That’s like vaccines being developed by China’s CanSino Biologics and Britain’s Oxford University and AstraZeneca.
It’s not the first controversial vaccine Russia developed. Putin mentioned earlier this year that Russian scientists delivered an Ebola vaccine that “proved to be the most effective in the world” and “made a real contribution to fighting the Ebola fever in Africa.”
Russia’s Health Ministry authorized two Ebola vaccines for domestic use -- one in 2015 and another one in 2018 -- but there is little evidence either was widely used in Africa.
In 2019, the WHO considered the 2015 vaccine along with several others for use in Congo but didn’t pick it. It pointed out that it had been approved for emergency use after Phase 1 and 2 trials, but not Phase 3. According to ClinicalTrials.Gov, a website maintained by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, a study among 2,000 people in Guinea and Russia was still ongoing last month.

The 2018 Ebola vaccine, according to the WHO, was tested on 300 volunteers in Russia and completed all three phases. The Associated Press couldn’t find any records of the studies in the Health Ministry’s registry of approved clinical trials. As of 2019, both Ebola vaccines were listed by the WHO as “candidate vaccines.”
Russia’s Health Ministry did not respond to numerous requests for comment, and the Gamaleya institute referred an interview request to the ministry.
It remains unclear whether Phase 3 trials, said to be carried out after the COVID-19 vaccine receives “conditional approval,” will wrap up by October, when health officials plan to start mass vaccinations, and how trustworthy the results will be. The study will supposedly involve 1,600 participants — 800 for each of the two forms of the vaccine; in comparison, a similar Phase 3 trial in the U.S. includes 30,000 people.
According to Dmitriev, countries including Brazil and India have expressed interest in the vaccine.
For Lawrence Gostin, this is another cause for concern.
“There may be many people in the world who don’t care about the ethics and just want the vaccine,” he said. 

Michael Osterholm:     22:34 into the podcast    

“You may have heard the Russians announcing last week that they will have a vaccine soon that they would be providing for their population - that one I have some concerns about in terms of how much safety and effectiveness data do they have”